Skip to main content

U.S gets it wrong on Egypt again

By Cynthia Schneider, Special to CNN
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Egyptian riot police stand guard as people protest against Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy in Cairo on December 29, 2012.
Egyptian riot police stand guard as people protest against Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy in Cairo on December 29, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • National protests against Morsy set for second anniversary of Egypt's revolution
  • Cynthia Schneider: U.S. out of step, underestimates the anti-Morsy sentiment
  • She says proponents of secular democracy think the U.S. backs Muslim Brotherhood
  • She says massive protests will show U.S. needs to align itself with the popular will

Editor's note: Cynthia Schneider is a professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University; dean at the School of Diplomacy, Dubrovnik International University; and a senior nonresident fellow at Brookings Institution. She is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

(CNN) -- Protests planned around Egypt -- particularly in Cairo's Tahrir Square -- on the second anniversary of the January 25 revolution are expected to be an explosion of dissent, revealing the deep divisions in the country between President Mohamed Morsy and the Egyptian people.

Opposition to Morsy's authoritarianism is broader than the world recognizes. In making accommodations for Morsy's government, the United States is -- once again -- out of step with the Egyptian people.

Cynthia P. Schneider
Cynthia P. Schneider

Egyptians may not know exactly what they want, but they know what they don't want. Although an effective political opposition has yet to coalesce, Egyptians from all sectors of society are united in their refusal to accept another repressive regime.

Egypt is on a collision course. An ever growing, if periodically discouraged, portion of the population opposes the government and Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood, and supports the revolution's goals of social and economic justice, accountable government, and basic freedoms, including freedom of expression and protection of minorities. Yet the government is moving in exactly the opposite direction, with its authoritarian control over political, social, and religious life.

The government's investigation of the wildly popular "Egyptian Jon Stewart" Bassem Youssef -- charged with insulting Morsy and undermining his command -- and the forced "retirement" of respected journalist Hani Shukrallah, editor of state-owned Al-Ahram's English-language website, are just two very public examples of the vice tightening on freedom of expression.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In fact, the Arab Network for Human Rights says about 24 lawsuits for insulting Morsy have been filed against journalists and activists since his election in June.

The regime is trying to put the revolution genie back in the bottle. But it is clamping down on a population that has discovered its voice. In opposition to this repression, Egyptians at all levels are increasingly engaged in politics.

A Cairo cab driver -- ever the measure of popular sentiment -- recently debated the failings of the Constitution with a passenger. After reaching the destination, the driver leapt out, grabbed a dogeared copy of the Constitution he kept in the front seat, and pointed to a passage to prove his point to his passenger.

The December demonstrations against President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Constitution, which attracted an even broader segment of the population than those who stood in Tahrir Square in 2011, revealed the broadening chasm between the regime and the people in Egypt.

Anti-Morsy protesters rally in Cairo
Egypt opposition's post-referendum plans
Egyptians take to the polls

Assembled outside the Presidential Palace were old and young, veiled and unveiled, rich and poor. Whether they arrived in chauffeur-driven cars or whether they marched from Cairo's outlying shantytowns, the hundreds of thousands joined together in their refusal to accept a state that squashed the dreams of the revolution and dictated political, social, and religious behavior.

Many call the second wave of the revolution in the fall of 2012 the "Mothers' Revolution." Parents and grandparents went into the streets to protest the divided loyalties in their families between the Islamists (Brotherhood or Salafis) and those supporting a democratic, secular Egypt. In Egypt, secular means freedom from state control of religion, not nonreligious.

The clash between these two visions of Egypt -- secular with freedom and social justice, or a religious state run by the Brotherhood with its version of Sharia law -- played out inside families and on the streets.

Soldiers protecting the Presidential Palace during the December demonstrations were moved to tears when an Egyptian woman, referring to Morsy, shouted at them, "Why are you protecting this man who is pitting Egyptians against each other?"

Mohamed El Gindy, a successful businessman who opposes Morsy and spent much of December camping in Tahrir with the young revolutionaries, has experienced this division within families firsthand. A relative who had joined the Salafis informed him that the extreme Islamist group had put El Gindy at No. 5 on its "hit list," which is widely believed by Egyptians to exist. The relative was unapologetic until El Gindy told him that he might as well put El Gindy's mother on the list, too, since the octogenarian also had joined the street protests.

Egypt and its families may be divided, but on one subject, all are united -- in the belief that the United States is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

Visible in the throngs at the December demonstrations were signs opposing Qatar and the United States -- yes, the U.S. and Qatar were lumped together as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood regime.

"This is such a historic opportunity to restore the image of the U.S., but instead it is putting itself in the same position as Qatar. ... And this from President Obama -- so disappointing," Riham Bahi, a professor at American University in Cairo, said, reflecting views heard repeatedly last December in Egypt.

Opposition leader and blogger Bassem Sabry was even more blunt: "With the Constitution in play, you are subsidizing an Islamist state." Sabry said he was always pro-U.S. "until the revolution."

In addition, the Pentagon plans to proceed with the delivery of 20 F-16 jets to Egypt, a step that looks to Egyptians like a vote of confidence in Morsy. Unchanged since the revolution, U.S. aid policy toward Egypt still makes the military alliance its priority.

Two years after the Egyptian Revolution, the U.S. government finds itself again backing an authoritarian regime against the popular will. As January 25 approaches, with massive protests planned against Morsy's government, this is a precarious position for both the U.S. and Egypt.

In his second term, Obama should adopt a more agile and informed policy toward Egypt, one that matches the words often heard from the White House -- "The United States always has stood with the Egyptian people" -- with action.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cynthia Schneider.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT